May 2012

Letters to the Editor
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Reflections on the Closure of Tenn.'s Philips Plant

[Editor's Note: On March 29, Philips, a multinational corporation, shut down its lighting fixture manufacturing plant in Sparta, Tenn. As Philips shifts production to a newly constructed plant in Mexico, members of Local 2143 — who had won awards for productivity and quality in one of the last manufacturing plants to remain in the region — are now looking for work. The IBEW joined the community and the plant's local managers in rallies, letter-writing efforts and a social media campaign that reached all the way to the corporation's headquarters in the Netherlands attempting to convince Philips to either reverse the shutdown decision or allow a group of managers and workers to purchase the plant. Tragically, none of these efforts were successful.]

To all,

Yesterday was a very sad experience for me. I spent the day in Sparta with the last remaining members of Local 2143 at the Philips Lighting plant. I must say it was a very strange atmosphere, as the last of our members loaded up their personal belongings before clocking out for the last time.

I could only compare the last day for me as attending a funeral of a close friend. While I was at a loss for words, the 15 remaining members seemed almost relieved it was over. A process to cease operations that started over 16 months ago now seems like a distant memory to all of us.

I have spent the past 12 months attending meetings looking around the room at the faces of hard working people. It was tough to see them being told how to apply for assistance, knowing all the while they wanted to continue contributing to the community, not ask for help.

The plant started in 1963 as Thomas Industries, changing to Genlyte-Thomas and three years ago to Philips. When Philips bought the plant, we were all excited. We thought it was a perfect marriage, a top builder of lamps and bulbs acquiring a top builder of fixtures.

Local 2143 always worked with management on new and innovative ways to compete in a global economy. Shortly after I was assigned to Local 2143, the management team proposed automated lines to the union, something that was not allowed by the contract.

After much debate, the members saw this as an opportunity to continue to be cost competitive. It was a tough choice, but they stepped up to the challenge and changed with the times.

For the next six years, our members worked closely with management to form one of the best labor/management relationships I have ever seen. They continued on with it after Philips bought the plant, winning "Best Plant" awards for safety, reliability, attendance and quality. They also went on to be named one of the "Top Ten Manufacturing Plants in North America" by Industry Week magazine. All the while, Philips was planning their demise.

It is ironic the closing was announced three weeks after they won all the company's top awards. In my 10 years servicing the local, we never had a grievance go past the third step, let alone a strike. It is very unfortunate that Philips decided to reward a top plant with closure. That being said, when I hear talking heads complain about unions pushing jobs outside the United States, I know these people have never been to Sparta, Tennessee.

The last order of business by the local union was to sponsor two $500 scholarships to the county high school for studies in the electrical trade. I thought this was amazing knowing they were locking the gate yesterday with no idea where their lives would lead today. Our members are truly "salt of the earth" people, always giving their best because that is all they know.

The members asked me to personally thank each and every one of you for all the time and effort directed toward them through this ordeal. While we knew it was a long shot to get Philips to reconsider, Local 2143 wanted to take a stand. Along with Local 2143, I appreciate all the help and assistance from everyone. While we were not able to change the outcome, I know we made a difference in our members' lives.

Brent E. Hall
Tenth District International Representative, Nashville, Tenn.

The now empty Philips light fixture plant in Sparta, Tenn.